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Axis and Allied intervention, collaboration in Iran.

Great Britain had a vested interest in Iran long before the onset of World War II. A key interest was obtaining and maintaining steady petroleum supplies, a strategic interest that existed before the beginning of World War I. The British, with their large and strained empire, were concerned that American, Dutch, or French oil companies were attempting to gain a favorable foothold in Persia as petroleum suppliers and that the British claim may be jeopardized. In 1908, the British Empire discovered a large oil reserve in Persia not far from where French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan first spotted oil seepages in southwest Persia in 1892. It was not until 1901 that attempts were made to exploit them. The fact that Winston Churchill, as first Lord of the Admiralty, converted the British Navy from coal to petroleum engines by 1912 was another important element in the United Kingdom's need to secure a key position in the oil market. Iranian prospects led to the establishment of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC--later the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company which then became British Petroleum) in 1914. The British government maintained a majority stock in APOC. Furthermore, given the German war machine's threats to North Africa, the British felt it might lose a main source of oil--Egypt--to the advancing Afrika Korps.

The primary objective for the British forces, along with the Soviet Union, in invading Iran was to secure the Abadan Oil Refinery, which was owned by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Abadan's location was in close proximity to the Iraqi border. Iraq and its neighbor Syria were influenced by pro-German intrigue. Even though much of the pro-Axis agitation had been thwarted, it was still possible for the Axis to continue waging their propaganda war and sabotage the Allies by using the Arab population as pawns. Capitalizing on anti-colonial feelings, and through the Iraqi government under Arab nationalist Rashid Ali Gaylani, the Nazis did their best to curry favor among Arab leaders in Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf.

Anglo-Soviet Policy Before World War II

British and Soviet involvement in Iran predates both World Wars. In 1800, Captain John Malcolm, a representative of the British East India Company was sent to Persia to gain friendship with the Fat'h Ali Shah. This was to counter the ruler of neighboring Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad Khan, who showed a propensity in attacking British interests in India. Within a decade, an agreement between Persia and the British was reached, allowing Britain to train Persian troops in an effort to aid in containing Afghan tribes.


Soviet interests in Iran, by contrast, had existed since the days of the ascendancy of military and economic influence of the Russian Empire. Tsarist Russia focused on building its landmass, military, and economic hegemony over eastern Europe and central Asia, and this naturally brought it into conflict with its neighbors. As European influence began spreading in North Africa and the Middle East, Russia felt it needed to assert itself in the region. Persia was east of the Ottoman Empire, and like the Ottoman Empire, had a land boundary with Tsarist Russia. Russia began putting economic and diplomatic pressure on Persia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Eventually, both British and Russian desires for Persian economic influence converged. This was marked by the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention that divided Persia into three zones of influence: a Russian sphere in the north, a British sphere in the southeast, and a neutral zone in the west and center of the country. (Russian and British officials agreed to this without consulting Persian officials.)

Naturally, Britain and Russia exerted considerable influence on Iran's trade and internal politics. The Anglo-Russian Convention declared that British and Russian governments would have exclusive rights over the natural resources contained within their respective spheres of influence.

Policy in Iran on the Eve of WWII

At the outbreak of WWII, Iran had officially declared its neutrality; however, at the same time, in order to break the continuous Soviet and British hegemonies and assert its own sovereignty, Reza Shah Pahlavi chose to establish economic ties with a rival power - Nazi Germany.

During this time, Operation Barbarossa was underway, and Britain felt that its Iranian interests were threatened by Iran's neutrality and economic relationship with Nazi Germany. This gave the newly Allied Soviets and the British impetus to invade Iran. The two Allies rationalized that they needed to invade Iran in order to protect Allied oil interests and to prevent the Iranians from capitalizing on German technological ties that might undermine the Allies.

In addition, with the word Iran meaning "Land of Aryans," the Nazis, as part of their philosophy, were in search for the origins of the Aryan people and thus blurred history and etymology to enhance Iranian-Nazi ties.

On 25 August 1941, the British and Russians invaded Iran. Iran deployed nine divisions of troops; the Allies deployed the 44th, 47th, and 53rd Soviet Armies along with the 8th and 10th Indian Infantry Divisions, the 21st Indian Infantry Brigade, the 2nd Indian Armored Brigade, and the 9th Armored Brigade. The Shah's army was ill-prepared for such an invasion. Less than four weeks later, the invasion (code-named Operation Countenance) was over, with the Allies securing their supply line to the eastern front.

Another objective of Operation Countenance was the removal of Reza Shah to abdicate in favor of his son, the young Mohammed Reza. The new Shah signed the Tripartite Agreement with England and the Soviets in January of 1942. A key clause in the Tripartite Agreement stated that: "The forces of Allied powers shall be withdrawn from Iranian territory not later than six months after all hostilities between the Allied powers and Germany and her associates have been suspended."


This agreement re-asserted Iranian sovereignty only after World War II. The Russians and the British, having several decades of almost unquestioned influence in Iran, sought to keep it that way especially during World War II. Even during the agreement's enforceability dates, the Russians were supplying Iranian separatists to prolong their influence over Iran. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company had valuable concessions in Khuzestan, which Moscow criticized, due to the proximity to the Soviet sphere of influence. In addition, both London and Moscow saw a development they did not approve of--the encroachment of American oil companies into Iran in 1944.

Lastly, the Russians delayed in withdrawing their troops after hostilities had ended. Though hostilities between the Axis and Allies had ended in 1945, in March 1946, some Russian troops still occupied Iran. They justified this under Article Six of a 1921 treaty between the Persians and the Russians, which allowed for Soviet military presence and intervention in Iran in the case of Soviet territory being threatened by a third power occupying Iranian soil.

After the war, the Soviets, British, and Americans were competing for economic influence over Iran. These powers exerted internal influence over Iranian politics and would continue this activity until the toppling of the Shah in 1979.

Iranian Ties with Nazi Germany

Reza Shah Pahlavi had fostered close economic and cultural ties with Germany since the Weimar Republic in 1921. Iran's trade with them rose from 8 percent to 60 percent. Persian exports of cotton, barley, wood, rice, silver, gold, and other goods attracted German trade. In exchange Germany supplied Iran with industrial equipment, machinery, and motor vehicles. The Iranian railroad system boasted 2,100 bridges and 224 tunnels. The 900-mile railroad stretched from Bander-e Shahpur on the Persian Gulf to Mianeh near the Russian border. The airline system was operated by German capital, equipment, and personnel. German engineers, technicians, and architects comprised the majority of the foreign expatriates in Iran.

In 1935, Reza Shah asked foreign delegates to use the term Iran (the historical name of the country, used by its native people) in formal correspondence. Iran's military had 40,000 men by 1926 and swelled to 126,000 by 1941, which included 14 divisions and five independent brigades. Tanks and armored vehicles were provided by the Czech firm Skoda, which was under Nazi control after 1938. Iran's air force was composed of 200 obsolete British biplanes and small navy patrolling craft delivered in the Persian Gulf.

German diplomacy became considerably more active in the Near East. During the late 1930s Nazi officials paid goodwill trips to Middle Eastern capitals. Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, Minister of Economics, paid official visits to Istanbul and Tehran in 1935. Reichsjugendfuhrer (Minister of Education) Baldur Von Schirach, toured Ankara, Damascus, and Tehran in December 1937. Nazi propaganda played on the alleged Aryan origins and ties between the two countries. An active element of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) existed in northwestern Iran. The mission of this active German organization in Iran was to gather intelligence on Soviet oil facilities and military activities in the Caucasus. German agents were to infiltrate labor and government circles, thereby sabotaging the production of British oil interests in Abadan. Many of these agents operated under the direction of Dr. Fritz Grobba, German ambassador to Iraq and Saudi Arabia, who moved his office to Tehran after the outbreak of the war. British intelligence and Sir Reader Bullard, London's minister in Tehran, estimated the spy network of Germans in Iran to be around 3,000. Agents were consistently infiltrating the Soviet border on surveillance missions.

Iran During WWII

At the outbreak of World War II, the Iranian government explained the country's stance to German intelligence agent Bernhard Schulze-Holthus:
 "You must understand the situation in this land (Iran) properly. For
 decades we have been living in a high tension field of international
 politics between Russia and England. The Russians have exploited our
 earlier weakness and have taken the Caucasus from us ... the British
 ... [act like] white lords who look upon us as colonials and treat us
 with unbearable arrogance ... what remains to us then, except to play
 the one off against the other? The Russians against the British and
 vice versa. But today we are expecting a great deal from a third
 power, which can be either the USA or Germany" (Howard Sachar, Europe
 Leaves the Middle East 1936-1954).

With Iran's neutrality declaration, a British naval blockade took effect immediately, and German merchant ships were barred from the Persian Gulf port of Bander-e Shahpur. The economy of Iran weighed heavily on continued trade with Germany. On 28 September 1939, German goods were passed to Iran via the Soviet Union despite the inner circles of the Shah's cabinet who urged him to move away from Iran's reliance on Germany. The Iranian government deeply expressed its concerns to the United States over the Soviet invasion of Finland and began hastily constructing fortification lines with six Iranian divisions stationed along its northern borders, but they were ill-equipped to handle a Soviet attack.


The Middle East Command in Cairo, headed by General Sir Archibald P. Wavell, presented to the War Office a detailed analysis of the Soviet threat to Iran and recommended British counter-measures. Wavell advocated deploying one division and a fighter squadron to defend the Iranian oil fields and the port of Basra in Iraq. The War Cabinet agreed with Wavell's proposal. However, with the initial successes of Germany's campaign against the Soviet Union and the danger of a potential German infiltration in the Middle East, a new mutual struggle brought the two Allies together. On 7 July 1940, Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano presented Hitler with Mussolini's plan for reorganizing the Near East. The plan was summarized as follows:

* Egypt and the Sudan: Italy to take over Britain's politico-military, juridical position. Elimination of the Suez Canal Company and the establishment of a special regime for the Canal Zone.

* Independence for Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Transjordan; Italian occupation of strategic points; treaty of exclusive alliance with Italy.

* Military joint occupation of Aden, Perim, and Socotra (Islands strategically located near the southern entrance into the Red Sea off the southwestern coast of Yemen and Somalia).

* Cession of British Somaliland and Djibouti to Italy.

No word was mentioned in Mussolini's plan regarding Iraq or Iran. It was presumed that both Iraq and Iran were to be allocated to the German sphere of influence.

On 26 June 1941, the Soviet ambassador in Tehran, Alexei Smirnov, delivered a note to the Iranian foreign ministry stating that his government had "serious evidence" of a planned German coup d' etat. The U.S. Ambassador to Tehran, Louis G. Dreyfus Jr., replied to a query from Washington, D.C., that neither he nor the British possessed reliable information on the internal organization of a Nazi "Fifth column" in Iran. Britain's Ambassador to Tehran, Sir Reader S. Bullard, informed his government that "Iranians generally are delighted at the German attack on ... their ancient enemy Russia." As Nazi successes in the Soviet Union accelerated, Iranians gathered in Tehran's Sepah Square to cheer loudly each time the media announced the fall of a Soviet city. The German military high command in Berlin ordered that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, plans should be drawn that addressed the British presence in the Near East and it would be subject to a "concentric attack" that would include a motorized advance through Iran.

In Cairo, General Claude Auchinleck's Middle East Command was drafting plans to address a potential German breakthrough in Turkey or the Caucasus by defending northern Iraq and advancing Allied forces north of Iran. Details of this plan against Iran were being leaked to both German intelligence and the Shah by Egypt's anti-British King Farouk. The Egyptian monarch made secret contacts with Berlin through his father-in-law Zoulfikar Pasha, Egyptian Ambassador to Tehran. Farouk stated that he had reliable information about a British decision to occupy not only the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company concession area and the ports of the Persian Gulf but also Kermanshah. With the Afrika Korps poised on the Egyptian frontier, Farouk attempted to undermine the British position in Egypt. British chiefs of staff were concerned that the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) might reach the Caucasus by mid-August, at which point the Germans might attempt to deny Britain its use of the northern airfields in Iraq and assumed that Iran would actively cooperate with Germany and allow Axis use of Iranian airfields. The British planners estimated that the Germans would launch a land offensive against Iraq from either Iran or southern Turkey utilizing four divisions from Tehran and one division from Tabriz. They stated that such an attack would most likely develop before April 1942.

In July 1941, General Wavell stated his view:
 "It is essential to the defense of India that the Germans should be
 cleared out of Iran now. Failure to do so will lead to a repetition
 of events, which in Iraq were only just countered in time. It is
 essential that we should join hands with Russia through Iran, and if
 the present Government is not willing to facilitate this, it must be
 made to give way to one which will. To this end the strongest
 possible pressure should be applied forthwith while the
 German-Russian struggle is in doubt" (Winston S. Churchill, The Grand

The British War Cabinet agreed on 22 July to prepare for a joint Anglo-Soviet military action.

American Minister to Tehran Dreyfus emphasized:
 "I do not minimize the fifth column danger. I am convinced, however,
 that the British are using it as a pretext for the eventual
 occupation of Iran and are deliberately exaggerating its potency as
 an isolated arm. I have come to the conclusion that the British and
 Russians will occupy Iran because of overwhelming military necessity
 no matter what reply the Iranians make to their demands. I must add
 emphatically to avoid misunderstanding that I am in full agreement
 with the British action and believe it to be a vitally necessary for
 the furtherance of our common cause" (Richard Stewart, Sunrise at
 Abadan: The British and Soviet Invasion of Iran, 1941, page 55).


Wavell instructed General Officer Commanding General Edward P. Quinan, to be prepared to occupy and secure the Abadan refinery as well as the Khuzistan and Naft-e shah oil fields. Quinan's plan was code-named Operation Countenance.

Operation Countenance

The 22 August 1941 New York Times front page headline declared "British and Russians poised to move into Iran." Iran attempted on several occasions to persuade the U.S. government to invoke its respected moral authority. Iranian Minister to Washington Mohammed Shayesteh cited how Secretary of State Cordell Hull and other U.S. officials proclaimed the principles of peaceful international relations. The Iranian ministers asked what the U.S. government planned to do to prevent the imminent British invasion of Iran. Hull replied that "British military authorities plan all of their strategy without any consultation with officials of the American government." Hull warned that the Germans had no respect for neutrality and would hurl any state into "serfdom and semi-slavery." Shayesteh replied in meek desperation: "If your government would say but one word to the British, I believe they would not invade Iran" (Stewart, page 94).

Reza Shah appealed directly to American President Franklin Roosevelt using the Atlantic charter as leverage. He wrote:
 "... on the basis of the declarations which Your Excellency has made
 several times regarding the necessity of defending principles of
 international justice and the right of peoples to liberty. I beg Your
 Excellency to take efficacious and urgent humanitarian steps to put
 an end to these acts of aggression. This incident brings into war a
 neutral and pacific country which has had no other care than the
 safeguarding of tranquility and the reform of the country. "
 (Stewart, page 168).

President Roosevelt replied:
 "Viewing the question in its entirety involves not only the vital
 questions to which Your Imperial Majesty refers, but other basic
 considerations arising from Hitler's ambition of world conquest. It
 is certain that movements of conquest by Germany will continue and
 will extend beyond Europe to Asia, Africa, and even to the Americas,
 unless they are stopped by military force. It is equally certain that
 those countries which desire to maintain their independence must
 engage in a great common effort if they are not to be engulfed one by
 one as has already happened to a large number of countries in Europe.
 In recognition of these truths, the Government and people of the
 United States of America, as is well known, are not only building up
 the defenses of this country with all possible speed, but they have
 also entered upon a very extensive program of material assistance to
 those countries which are actively engaged in resisting German
 ambition for world domination. " (Stewart, page 168-169).

Operation Countenance began with an attack by the British warship HMS Shoreham on the harbor at Abadan, which destroyed the Iranian sloop Palang on 25 August 1941. The Allied plans had been carefully worked out to conform to the historic spheres of influence of the 1907 Anglo-Russian Entente. From the west and southeast, concentrated at Basra, the British Iraq Command known as Iraqforce (renamed Paiforce) was under the command of Quinan. Paiforce was composed of the 8th and 10th Indian Infantry Divisions, 2nd Indian Armoured Brigade, 9th Armoured Brigade and the 21 st Indian Infantry Brigade, and one bomber and a fighter squadron. The Russians entered the north with their 44th, 47th and 53rd Armies. The Persian Army mobilized nine infantry divisions. The objective was to seize the oil refinery at Abadan, which was 50 miles down river from Maqil. Local Iranian troops, though armed with the heavy caliber Skoda artillery, lacked training. The refinery was captured without damage with little to no British casualties. The 10th Indian Division entered Khanaqin from the west under the command of Major General Sir William Slim. Iranian troops retreated at the sight of Blenheim bombers overhead by 27 August. On 28 August, Tehran called for a truce. British casualties included 17 killed and 42 wounded.

The Russians in the northwest found their campaign even easier. A mechanized column from Tiflis (Tbilisi) and another from Baku converged on the town of Qazvin, Bandar-e Pahlavi and Maku on the Caspian coast, north of Tehran. At 1500 on 31 August, Iranian Prime Minister Foroughi informed the British and Soviet legations that his government accepted the Allied terms. The British and Soviet forces met in Tehran on 17 September with the oilfields safeguarded and the strategic Trans-Iranian Railway undamaged. The Shah and his family boarded a British steamer bound to Johannesburg, South Africa, which is where be died on 26 July 1944. On 17 September, his son, Mohammed Reza ascended to the throne and took a pro-Allied stance for the duration of the war assuring war materiel supply routes were conveyed to Russia.



Following Operation Barbarossa, the struggling British swiftly gained a crucial ally against the seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine. The pro-Nazi coups in Iraq led by Rashid Ali Gaylani and the Vichy French control of Syria had left Iran open to potential harassment by Axis involvement. With Iran firmly in the hands of the Allies, the utilization and pooling of a supply route to the Soviet Union was established.

The Nazis were desperate in sealing additional fronts to divert the British from concentrating their efforts with the Soviets. A German conquest of the Caucasus, Persian oil fields and an outflanked British position in North Africa, linked up with Japanese forces in India, would have been disastrous. The beleaguered Red army was saved from defeat, and German plans for the Middle East were thwarted, thus later creating forthcoming conditions of the Cold War.

As stated by Lord George Curzon, British Viceroy of India, "It should be a cardinal axiom of British policy that her Majesty's Government will not acquiesce in any European power, and more especially Russia, overrunning central and southern Persia and so reaching the Persian Gulf, or acquiring naval facilities in the latter even without such territorial connections" (Stewart, page 4).

Today, being the chief financier of Hezbollah and with its hand in the development of atomic energy and its growing nuclear program, originally endorsed by the United States under Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program, Iran has become a major player in the grand political arena of the Near East that the U.S. can no longer afford to overlook.

CAPT Basil Aboul-Enein is an Air Force biomedical science officer and is a frequent contributor on Islamic militancy and facism and on Middle East command operations during World War II. He holds a Master of Science degree from Texas Woman's University, a Master of Public Health from the University of Texas-Health Science Center and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Military History from Norwich University.

LCDR Faisal Aboul-Enein, U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, Inactive Reserve, is a clinical assistant professor at Texas Woman's University and a senior nursing instructor at MD Anderson Cancer Center. He completed a Doctor of Public Health from the the University of Texas Health Science Center.

J.D. Thornton received his undergraduate degree in Political Science and English Literature from the University of Central Arkansas. He completed his Master of Arts in English Literature in August of 2005 and is currently pursuing a post-baccalaureate degree in nursing.

A list of references is available through Infantry Magazine.

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Title Annotation:Professional Forum
Author:Aboul-Enein, Basil H.; Aboul-Enein, Faisal H.; Thornton, J.D.
Publication:Infantry Magazine
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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